The Lions will head back to Johannesburg seething. They will likely fly back to Britain and Ireland still seething.
How the French referee failed to send Schalk Burger off for gouging is beyond belief. Not only was Burger caught on the giant TV screens picking furiously at Luke Fitzgerald’s eyes, but assistant Bryce Lawrence also caught the incident and reported it. Berdos thought for a minute, and chickened out ingloriously, telling Burger to keep his fingers to himself in future and dispatching him for ten minutes.
It had, for the sake of the game which is being increasingly blighted by this most cowardly of crimes, to be a red card. It was not.
In a match decided with the final kick, it was the ultimate turning point and it was in the opening minute. The likely subsequent citing and long ban will do nothing to remove the sour taste in the Lions’ mouths, but Peter de Villiers’ ridiculous and detestable denial of the offence – “Ach, it’s sport, man, this is what it’s all about” – after the game will merely exacerbate it – both to the British rugby public and, potentially, the world’s.
Burger aside, Ronan O’Gara will also have to take a long period of deep introspection. The blood rushed in the final minute, and instead of settling for a kick to touch which would have secured the draw he launched a huge up and under, following it up with a hot-blooded mid-air shoulder charge on Fourie du Preez. Steyn (Wearing His Nike Rugby boots) had to land a kick from 55 metres, but in his home stadium and at altitude, it was always his to make. O’Gara should never have given that opportunity, certainly not in that fashion.
There were so many other talking points. Did the Lions have their game eviscerated by losing both props to injury in the 46th minute? The South African comeback after that point suggests so. Should JP Pietersen have been yellow-carded for his atrocious tackle on Rob Kearney shortly after Burger had returned? Most definitely
Enough of all that now though, instead, let’s have a sift through the finest Test match all those lucky enough to be in Loftus have seen for some time.
In a rip-roaring first half, the Lions did everything they had to do, not only to take control of the game but to make the strongest statement possible to their hosts that this series would go all the way to the wire.
There was physical intimidation, a magnificent scrum against the head on their own five-metre line, an early try and a domination of possession that will have warmed the hearts of the coaching team who have made that kind of style their priority. By 25 minutes, the Lions had enjoyed a staggering 71 per cent of the ball in play and were good value for perhaps more than their 13-5 lead.
The Lions had heroes everywhere – no-one more so than 35-year-old lock Simon Shaw, whose magnificent Test debut gained its deserving reward when he was named man of the match.
South Africa kept themselves in the contest as Bryan Habana (Wearing His Adidas Predator Powerswerve Rugby boots), his fellow wing JP Pietersen and substitute centre Jaque Fourie scored tries, the latter just six minutes from time following lengthy deliberation by Australian television official Stuart Dickinson.
Steyn added 10 points from the boot, while his namesake Francois slotted a long-range effort, and the Lions were thwarted.
It was a game that had everything, and is still not over for Springboks flanker Schalk Burger, who must surely be facing a disciplinary hearing on Sunday after he clearly eye-gouged Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald inside the first minute of the match.
Referee Christophe Berdos opted for a yellow card for Burger, who was winning his 50th cap, but television replays suggested it should have been red, with Burger now looking certain to be cited by the match commissioner.
The Lions cashed in on his 10-minute absence, taking the lead through a Jones penalty and then carving South Africa open by creating a quality try for Kearney.
Berdos had been forced to issue a warning just seconds before following a dust-up sparked by Springboks lock Victor Matfield, yet the Lions kept their focus.
Scrum-half Mike Phillips launched a blindside attack, and Jones’ exquisite off-load freed Kearney, who finished majestically.
Jones’ effortless touchline conversion put the Lions 10-0 ahead after they delivered a start in stark contrast to their efforts in Durban seven days ago.
South Africa needed an immediate response, and it arrived within five minutes when flanker Juan Smith and Du Preez combined from a lineout and Pietersen exploded through an inviting midfield gap.
Ruan Pienaar hit the post with an easy conversion attempt, before a second Jones penalty and a magnificent defensive Lions scrum under pressure underlined their colossal first-half improvement from last weekend.
The Lions were once again confident with ball in hand, and after going through the phases deep inside Springboks territory, Jones dropped a short-range goal.
It was impressively assured rugby from the Lions, and although Steyn booted a long-range penalty as half-time approached, South Africa still had it all to do at 16-8 adrift.
There were big problems for the Lions though within six minutes of the restart as props Jenkins and Jones both went off.
Jenkins clashed heads with Habana, and was forced off nursing a head wound, but worse was to follow when Jones suffered a serious-looking arm injury.
Lock Alun-Wyn Jones took over from his Ospreys colleague, with Andrew Sheridan replacing Jenkins, yet it meant uncontested scrums for the final 30 minutes.
A scoreless third quarter played into the Lions’ hands, and the physical intensity of the match was further underlined when a collision between O’Driscoll and Springboks substitute Danie Rossouw ended with Rossouw going off just four minutes after joining the action.
O’Driscoll only lasted another two minutes though, making his exit after South Africa had cut the deficit in ruthless fashion.
Habana sprinted over for his 33rd Test try in 48 games, finishing off a rapier-like move, and substitute Steyn’s conversion set up a gripping finish with the Lions leading 19-15.
Steyn (Wearing His Nike vapor Rugby Boots) then slotted a penalty that cranked up the pressure on the Lions, but the immaculate Jones quickly responded, making it 22-18 with 10 minutes left.
An injury to Roberts meant the Lions had to reorganise their back division, and they entered the closing stages with O’Gara at fly-half, Jones and wing Tommy Bowe in midfield and Fitzgerald and Shane Williams on the wings.
There was a sense of the Lions hanging on, and they relinquished their lead five minutes from time when Fourie squeezed in at the corner and Steyn booted the touchline conversion.
A draw would have been arguably the fair resultafter a great game but Morne Steyn had other ideas on his home ground.
For South Africa:
Tries: Pietersen, Habana, Fourie
Cons: Pienaar, M Steyn
Pens: M Steyn 2, F Steyn
For the Lions:
Pens: Jones 5
Drop goal: Jones
South Africa: 15 Frans Steyn, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Adi Jacobs, 12 Jean de Villiers, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Juan Smith, 6 Schalk Burger, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 John Smit (captain), 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Deon Carstens, 18 Andries Bekker, 19 Danie Rossouw, 20 Heinrich Brüssow, 21 Jaque Fourie, 22 Morné Steyn.
British and Irish Lions: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Paul O’Connell (captain), 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Sheridan, 17 Ross Ford, 18 Alun Wyn Jones, 19 Martyn Williams, 20 Harry Ellis, 21 Ronan O’Gara, 22 Shane Williams
Referee: Christophe Berdos (France)
Assistant referees: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand), Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
TMO: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)